User talk:Mchua/Braindumps/Chicago office


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Warning: All this information is highly unstable, draft-like, and not for public release beyond this wiki yet.


Full-time staff

  • Mel Chua (mchua) - Electrical & Computer Engineer, emphasis on "Computer." Point person for software projects (attempting to outsource this role...), technical documentation work, and activities with local schools. Also ultimately responsible for office space/supplies/funding/blah/blah/blah.
  • Nikki Lee (nlee) - Electrical & Computer Engineer, emphasis on "Electrical." Point person for hardware/peripheral projects and local support community development; also possibly local Art Community activities on the side.
  • Chris Carrick - Mechanical Engineer specializing in appropriate tech development and off-grid energy alternatives, amateur photographer. Point person for mechanical projects, particularly chargers, and documenting local grassroots activity.


Mark Romz: If anyone is interested in meeting on a regular semi-regular basis in the actual city, we could use my office. It's located in River North with easy access from public transportation (2 blocks from merchandise mart) or decent access to parking meters during non-work hours. We have a large conference room that could comfortably fit a dozen people. Timing is flexible as long as it's on weekdays after 6pm or weekends.

consider since it is short term, finding a Boys & Girls Club where you could rent space. I would help the club bring in a little money, expose the kids to the XO and to ordinary people who are helping kids.

If not there then at another non-profit that has kids around. Maybe a school that has a summer program etc.I am sure Chicago people would have ideas

Re: location accessibility to wheelchairs, etc. (and people who use public transport)

We hope it'll be closer to the city as well, but it's really dependent on where we can find space that we can afford. Any pointers towards cheap/free/donated office space - even as a temporary summer locale so we can get operations underway while figuring out whether/where/how to do a longer-term lease - would be very helpful, if anyone on this list has leads or suggestions.

(I'll also point out that there's a *lot* of Illinois outside the Chicago area, and a lot of great schools and people - having /everything/ in the city is a bit more location-exclusive than I'd personally like - but that's me.)

The current default fallback (100% guaranteed to be possible) is "the basement of the house all the staff members are living in," but that's hardly optimal, because that house is out in the suburbs, about an hour away by train.

One option under serious consideration is not having a physical base (outside of the place we're sleeping), but instead making an XO Lab In A Van, and having project hackathons and events hosted in different locations across IL each time - that's a lot of overhead and coordination, but it's possible if the IL OLPC community would be willing to help host.

But again - many things are getting pinned down for the office right now, and a lot more information with much less vague hand-waving will be forthcoming in the announcement a weekend-and-a-week from now.

Invitation email

I'm emailing to offer the you a spot in starting the OLPC Chicago grassroots branch office this summer. It's a full-time nonprofit startup gig, with advice and support from the OLPC folks in Boston, as well as Austria/Nepal/etc.etc.etc. and plenty of wonderful mentors but no "bosses").

I can't promise glamorous conditions or oodles of money, but I can promise free room and board (currently checking out to see if we might actually be able to pay you a decent stipend as well; if finances are the only thing keeping you from doing this let me know), write-your-own-job-descript flexibility, the opportunity to work with ridiculously cool appropriate tech development/outreach/entrepreneurship/sustainability projects, awesome people, and having a real impact on the Chicago area's education and hacker ecosystems, the OLPC program, and (at risk of sounding trite) a serious chance to change the world in less than 3 months. Start/end dates are negotiable and there is no obligation to continue anything at all beyond summer.

Start thinking of dates you want to be here, or dates you don't want to be at the office. If you want to take a week or two of breather in July and go to California with your family, don't let me stop you. Note that these efforts will, if all goes well, continue to run past this summer, so there's no date you strictly have to end by.

Start thinking of projects you want to do, people (or the kinds of people) you'd like to meet, outreach activities you'd like to run... we'll talk about this more in the future but getting started early never hurts. Particularly important is the kind of equipment/budget you might need for stuff, so I can get you resources.

Finally, think of something that is not OLPC related that you want to do this summer. Even if we'll have a lot of "business trips" this summer, our office is currently the same as our domicile (it may not be; I'm working on this) and I don't want anyone to go insane from too much work and never getting out, so I'm going to strongly suggest that you take off at least one evening a week to do something else, somewhere else, be it dancing or rock climbing or painting lessons or joining a local church choir or whatever. Personally, I'm likely to take speech therapy to work on my "deaf accent," plus (re)taking up martial arts.

Potential projects


Work on charger designs (including bike charger, if you're still keen on pedaling a lot this summer), possibly cases and physical-accessibility peripherals. You'd likely have a small staff of volunteers who can help you design and fabricate.

Your talent for photography will also be used as much as possible - there will be much grassroots activity and outreach to document during our very, very frequent trips to other places to meet/train/present/pitch in, including gorgeous cities, schools, workshops, and places with large numbers of cool photogenic technologies and cute kids. (Together!)

Other potential options: working with Fermilab/IMSA people to start a renewable energy museum in the Chicago area (featuring, among other things, OLPC charging stuff)

Working with (actually, organizing) sustainably-minded engineers in the Chicago area to come up with, prototype, and move different laptop charging systems towards manufacture (or some sort of system where grassroots groups in various countries can build your charger designs on their own - a sustainable model for open hardware production is sorely needed, if you want to delve into the entrepreneurship side).

Farm visit

The below text is a note from a farm in MN that's also working on off-grid power and which we'll be visiting this summer:

And on off-grid power, we are currently working on solar concentrators to be applied with a boundary layer turbine. Just like the MIT solar turbine in Lesotho, except I question their replicability. I tried to work with them, but have not succeeded yet. Brittany here is drawing up the design for the solar concentrators, and we have the complete turbine design ready for building. I think we can crack the renewable energy nut, for mass replication, by using our neocommercial concepts. Our prototype, we made some calculations yesterday, should be able to produce 1.5 kW electric (assuming pathetic 5% overall conversion efficiency), and be at least 3 times as cheap as solar cells.


We will publish the initial working design by 3.25.08 or sooner. That's a start, and then we go into optimization. We are aiming to apply the funding cycles idea to the concentrator-turbine, see

Anyway, this is totally related to off-grid anywhere. I believe it will meet 3rd world cost requirements. It applies first to us getting truly solar here, without oil munching diesels. It applies to the forthcoming peer-to-peer, at-cost internet infrastrcture. (see It applies to OLPC. This is something we could take to Zero Hour now.

Let me know what you think.

I propose that the solar concentrators, implemented in practice, could be a great topic to work on. We will be building them - and since we have all types of building to do with our new CEB press - we'll need all the help we could get. If you want to pursue this, please review the Solar Concentrator page, and hack it. We've got a working design on paper - it will be 300 sq feet of collector space- but we need to test this through peer review.


You're awesome on XO support, and I'd want you to start up a local support community for the Chicago area, especially if IMSA and some of the other schools here manage to get 100+ laptop pilot programs started (the four of us can *not* support that number of local users).

Also, art. Big art community in Chicago. Big, big art community. Would love to see how you could tap into that.

I would also like you to move into the technical side of things and become the summer's resident SparkE (which means, in order to have time for this, you'll need to find and train your successor in the local support/docs area). Again, you'll likely have your own small staff of high schoolers to help with design and fabrication for peripherals, although that would mostly involve mentoring/supervising their work occasionally than doing Lots Of Peripheral Design yourself. As a main ECE focus, one option would be becoming an XO-jack-of-all-trades in terms of hardware/firmware to work on a field repairs system/guide.


We need a social-entrepreneurship guy who speaks fluent bahasa engineer. Here's the issue: Basically, OLPC is a marvel of engineering and all that, but the grassroots support/business/distribution models need work.

The challenge: develop, deploy, and field-test that infrastructure in Chicago, aiming for a mirror deployment in the developing world (location TBD) later on. We need a semi-independent sustainable volunteer-run business/repair/support model. Chicago is a good "starter" ground for that; we're next to Brightstar, far enough from Boston that we'd essentially be "on our own," but have a good mass of interested schools/students/developers/industry people/etc, easily accessible equipment, fewer cultural/financial barriers, and less risk to take (people with G1G1 machines here have it as a luxury item rather than a fundamental educational tool, generally speaking, so it's not like we'll Ruin the Education of Thousands of Central American Children if we make an oops).

Supply, distribution, dealing with quantities required by manufacturers (or finding locally-manufactured solutions), a sustainable financial and volunteer-manpower game plan, warehousing... it's a thorny problem, but a fun one.


Code monkey and doc-writing ninja with a sideline in education, in brief. Ask if you want to know more.

what is this?

In the meantime, folks - we're coming to IL this summer for *you*, so what do you want, what would you like to see, what would you want a grassroots office space (or roaming van) to do? Want us to help you host a hackathon or Jam? A "summer camp" or course on electronics, programming, graphic design, curriculum creation, translation, wiki-tinkering, Linux, Sugar, Python? Gearing up for pilot programs in the fall (what schools? each school needs its own dedicated group of support volunteers). Internships? Support for and/or work on research/scholarly papers/conferences on XO/constructi(vi/ioni)st learning? Approaching local governments? Repairs?

Note, please, that all these things *can* be done by grassroots and university groups (that's you!), right now - my take on it is that the role of staff this summer is to help nucleate *your* projects, not to sweep everything under our giant umbrella; we don't want to be a giant umbrella, but more of a spark that zips from place to place, connecting, helping, and catalyzing where we can. We'll be here as full-time resources - please use us.

What would you like to see us do? (We've got some rough project/charter ideas, but want to hear yours - brainstorm a bit yourself before reading on.)

Our thoughts for 4 main projects so far (use for translation):

  • Bss-tevq cbjre trarengvba. Cebgbglcvat punetref jvgu gur vagrag bs gheavat bhg abg whfg fbzr svavfurq qrfvtaf, ohg n ersrerapr gung bguref pna fgneg sebz sbe znxvat gurve bja pbzcyrgryl qvssrerag punetre qrfvtaf (onfvp ryrpgebavpf, fcrpf, zngrevnyf fbheprf, rgp - na bss-tevq-cbjre pbbxobbx gung rapbhentrf rkcrevzragngvba.)
  • Ercnve Pragref Va N Obk - n uneqjner/fbsgjner/ragercerarhefuvc/erfbhepr xvg gung jvyy arrq nf yvggyr genafyngvba nf cbffvoyr (aba-yvathvfgvp qrfvta - urnil hfr bs cvpgherf naq fvzcyr ibpnohynel gb pbzzhavpngr cbffvoyl pbzcyrk gbcvpf).
  • Npprffvovyvgl/Urnygu - qrirybc crevcurenyf naq fbsgjner fb gung xvqf jvgu fcrpvny arrqf pna hfr gur KB; qbirgnvyf dhvgr pybfryl jvgu rkvfgvat rssbegf gb znxr urnygu/zrqvpny eryngrq KB-onfrq zngrevnyf.
  • Cvybg qngn funevat - gur dhrfgvba bs "jung unccraf jura lbh chg gurfr va n fpubby?" arrqf gb or frevbhfyl gnpxyrq ng na rqhpngvba erfrnepu yriry; jung fbeg bs dhrfgvbaf/cebwrpgf/crbcyr/vasenfgehpgher arrq gb or chg va cynpr gb trg n tbbq ybpny zrgn-haqrefgnaqvat bs jung'f unccravat va lbhe pynffebbzf, naq ubj pna jr cebgbglcr cebprffrf gung znxr vg rnfl sbe cvybgf gb funer guvf qngn jvgu rnpu bgure naq rkgreany erfrnepuref, naq sbe rirelbar gb jbex jvgu naq hfr gur qngn gung'f tvira?

Discuss. I'll try to port the ensuing discussion to wiki (help welcome, as usual).



(for staff and interested volunteers)

Useful skills to pick up before this summer - don't feel obligated to hit the whole list, that's impossible! (and heck, I don't know half of these myself yet.) But if you have the opportunity to pick these up, that would be excellent - particularly fabrication.

  • Engineering
    • Well, everything in general, but in particular...
    • Materials selection (focus on readily available / easily fabricate-able/ eco-friendly stuff... and electronics materials, too)
    • Signal processing - focus on filtering sensor input
    • Batteries and power supplies and power management circuits
    • Design for manufacturing - general understanding of how each component of the laptop is fabricated en masse, from injection molding the case to running the PCBs through a reflow oven to the assembly line with lots of Chinese workers going through a final parts plug-in
  • Fabrication
    • Welding
    • Lathe
    • Mill
    • Hand tools (power drill, hand saw, hammer, dremel, etc)
    • (Long shot, but) laser cutter
    • Circuit assembly
      • Breadboarding
      • PCB design/fabrication
      • Soldering (if you can, try surface-mount and reflow on a tiny scale... it's hard)
  • Programming/computers
    • Python (most important)
    • C (microcontrollers)
    • Forth
    • Wiki-fu (Mediawiki
    • Basic Linux usage (I'd like to set a moratorium on Windows use - except for Solidworks, perhaps - the first two weeks of June.)
  • Design
    • Ergonomics (for human-powered charging)
    • HFID/UI/Paper prototyping
    • Qualitative research methods (anthro/socio ways of thinking - UOCD)
    • Long-distance teamwork and communication
  • Education (read the Wikipedia articles if you have a moment, I've got some books for you at the start of this summer)
    • Piaget, Papert, Alan Kay / Constructivism, Constructionism, Squeak
    • The notion of "unschooling" and "free schools" (warning: some radical political stuff can crop up here, you don't have to buy into it all, just steal the good ideas)
    • Standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, and grades - don't hate them, try to learn why we're using them, why they seem like a good solution to some - we have to work within the existing framework of the world
  • Politics/Globalization
    • internationalization (i18n) - what are .po files?
    • the education politics of Illinois, or <insert region/country of interest here> - how do they make decisions, who's elected when, what changes have passed through these structures in the past?
    • communicate with someone whose language you don't speak at all (easy way to do this: hang out in a French chatroom, or something)
    • what life is like outside the suburbs of America
  • Entrepreneurship
    • The art of phone calls and letters asking for donations
    • Small business structures (mainly for repair centers/support, but things like accessory/peripheral design, training, classes, etc. can exist as well)
    • Marketing and advertising in a low-cost, viral, grassroots way


I see this summer as a time to lay the proof-of-concept groundwork (in terms of technology, infrastructure, curriculum, and a vibrant volunteer community to support all three and more) so later on it will be possible for grassroots groups - any grassroots group that wants to - to go to the State of Illinois and say "this works - we should do it for more schools." (If it does work - we don't know yet if it will - I'm working on this because I think it will.)

By "laying proof-of-concept-groundwork," I mean making other local grassroots groups more solid - I'm deliberately trying not to build up long-term infrastructure under the nucleation group (which will happen to have a physical office somewhere in the Chicago area, and have a charter to support efforts in IL for these first few months) because I want to avoid an XO monoculture, especially in these crucial starting months when nobody knows what's going to happen or what works - we want to encourage folks to take their own initiatives, start their own projects, build their own infrastructures that'll stand on their own two feet - and still communicate with the local (and the global) OLPC community. Seed lots of independent, diverse options, and let best practices emerge.

Or in other words, "we're in business to put ourselves out of business." ;-) Not that we don't want to stick around, but that since "what's needed" is an open question and the answer is in flux, I want to put an explicit sunset clause of end-of-August on the nucleation group, and take a step back closer to that date and figure out whether/how to go forward then, when we know more.

We are the nucleators. If we can make local groups *not need us* by the end of August, that is wonderful - the thread will always be there for us (and others) to pick up again if we want to contribute/volunteer further, but we'll be able to leverage out and bring what we've learned to other places as well

re: legislature

no immediate plans to pitch this to the state, and I think it's a little early to do that without proof-of-concept IL pilots. (So that would be the first step, in my mind.) We'll probably support and encourage efforts if one of the local grassroots groups wants to make connections with state government, since the local educators like yourself who have worked in IL for many years are likely to have much better contacts there than a group of engineers coming in from across the country.

I'm trying to get some funding so we can give living stipends to people who want to help out full time this summer - all the staff members so far are working without pay, but I don't want to ask others to do that - although we should put out a call for unpaid (but-hopefully-paid) internships soon, once mission has been pinned down. (I'm holding off on making a "formal" announcement until the charter/mission has been pinned down, but don't mind at all if this leaks out in advance.)

Not branding as Chicago-centric is a really good idea, and one I hadn't really considered the implications of - thank you for bringing it up. Aside from rebranding from the start, and making sure to go out and reach out to non-Chicago communities (UIUC is probably a good jumping off point for that), what can we do?

In terms of how this impacts what we call ourselves; we've been using the words "Chicago office" a lot, but we should be neither about "Chicago" nor an "office." Something like "IL nucleation group" is more accurate, but sounds a little awkward.

It's not that there's information we're keeping secret from everyone - it's that much in the way of solid, confirmed information doesn't exist; a lot of things are in flux and will be settled out over the next several days, and I've just tried to throw those open for discussion on the list. Hoping to keep "office" operations as transparent as possible so that there won't be anything anyone will need to keep in the strictest confidence, actually.


We're on the verge of being tax-deductible, which is awesome.

We need a bank account. has some references on forms that ought to be filled out.

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